THERE ARE MOMENTS IN HISTORY when all the options available to political leaders are bad. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, faced such a moment in the late-1930s. New Zealand’s current political leadership is facing an equally fraught range of options. Already, there is no course of action available to either Jacinda Ardern or Christopher Luxon that does not, ultimately, end in tears.
How did we arrive at such a dangerous moment?
For the beginnings of an answer we must look to the Bicultural Project developed by the New Zealand Left in the 1980s. In its essence, this project was an attempt to retain the coherence of the New Zealand working-class by building a much greater level of cultural understanding between Pakeha and Māori workers, thereby ensuring that any improvements in living standards and political influence would benefit both ethnicities equally. In its first iteration, at least, the Bicultural Project was about class and culture. A rising economic tide, born of working-class unity, would lift all boats – and waka.
Māori nationalists were having none of it. From their perspective, the original Bicultural Project was just another Pakeha ruse for remaining in charge of the evolution of the New Zealand state. From the very beginning, nationalist writers – most notably Donna Awatere – were at pains to make it clear that the acquisition of Tino Rangatiratanga, Māori Sovereignty, would be achieved in spite of, not by the grace and favour of, the “White Left”. Māori nationalists of aristocratic lineage evinced only scorn for the trade unions and the left-wing parties. Their goal was always admirably clear. They wanted their country back. All of it. Now.
Perhaps, if Rogernomics had never happened, some sort of compromise might have been reached. We’ll never know. The Neoliberal Revolution smashed the unity of the New Zealand working-class into a thousand pieces. As always in this country’s history, massive economic change hit Māori communities the hardest. Meanwhile, what was left of the traditional Pakeha working-class was demobilised and disarmed by the Employment Contracts Act. Within a few years the White Left had ceased to exist.
Biculturalism 2.0, however, neither needed nor wanted any sort of Left. Māori nationalists found Neoliberalism’s take on the Bicultural Project much more encouraging than the Marxists’ version. Lord Cooke of Thorndon’s 1987 “partnership” formulation of the Treaty relationship dovetailed neatly with the neo-tribal capitalism mandated by the Crown/Iwi-based Treaty Settlement Process. The resulting quasi-autonomous ethnic corporations, working hand-in-glove with the Executive Branch of the New Zealand state, were now on course to produce an entirely new set of constitutional possibilities.
The relentless promotion of the so-called “Partnership Model” within those institutions directly controlled by, and/or beholden to, the State, combined with a young Māori elite, educated by the Iwi corporates, and strategically located by sympathetic public servants at the myriad power-points of the state apparatus, transformed the human resources of the Crown into a powerful ideological force. In alliance with the free-floating Iwi corporations, the New Zealand state and its appendages – especially the major political parties, the mainstream news media and the universities – were now ready to proceed to the next phase: Biculturalism 3.0 – also known as “Co-Governance”.
Given the intense preparation which has gone into raising Māori expectations of co-governance, it would now be extremely dangerous for any political party to bring its institutional evolution to a halt. That said, the lack of any serious preparation of the non-Māori population for the revolutionary implications of setting New Zealand’s democratic political system aside in favour of “parity” between the Treaty “partners”, has already set in motion the growth of potentially massive electoral resistance to the co-governance project.
On the Pakeha Right the expectation is that the National and Act parties will, between them, bring the “anti-democratic” innovations of “Māori radicals” to a shuddering halt. The vehicle for this moratorium is the Act Party’s “bottom-line” referendum on co-governance, the result of which the Right (almost certainly correctly) regards as a forgone conclusion. Should National indicate in any way its reluctance to adhere to Act’s bottom-line, then its grip on the right-leaning electorate will be weakened profoundly – boosting Act’s support and quite possibly bringing the NZ First Party back into Parliament.
On the Centre-Left, by contrast, there is a growing level of apprehension that its steadily declining level of support – as registered in the opinion polls – will require not only the seats of Labour and the Greens, but also those of Te Pāti Māori, if “progressives” are to retain possession of the Treasury Benches. With support for Te Pāti Māori rising (at the Greens’ expense) neither Labour nor the Greens will be able to signal any retreat from their commitment to the co-governance project.
Even within Te Pāti Māori, fears will be growing that the support it is attracting in the polls may not end up being reflected in the polling-booths. Younger voters are notoriously difficult to mobilise, especially when compared to older voters (who can be relied upon to cast their votes with an almost religious devotion). To get these younger voters “off the couch”, Te Pāti Māori will need to present the coming election as an existential threat to the future of tangata whenua in Aotearoa. Co-governance will thus be elevated to a non-negotiable component of the nation’s future.
Labour and the Greens will find themselves being dragged further and further to the left in order to keep this nascent Red-Green-Brown coalition together. To distract their still dubious working-class Pakeha supporters from the co-governance question, Labour may lay before them reforms aimed squarely at dismantling the neoliberal economic order in favour of “real Labour policies”. With the Greens and Te Pāti Māori shouting “Me too!”, it will be the turn of National and Act to paint the forthcoming election as not only an existential threat to democracy, but also to the socio-economic status quo.
Clearly, not everybody’s expectations can be fulfilled in a democratic election. Historically, the voters on either side of the political divide have understood and accepted this state of affairs. There is always next time.
The risk New Zealand runs in 2023 is that the policy promises of the contending parties will be come to be seen by their respective supporters as critical to the survival of the nation. On the Right, the introduction of co-governance will be equated with the death of democracy. On the Left, a racist referendum endorsing the elimination of co-governance will be construed as an all-out assault on the Treaty of Waitangi and the indigenous people it was intended to protect.
In such circumstances, the uncompromising partisans on both sides begin to believe that if they concede defeat there will be no “next time”. At that point the cry goes out for a “continuation of politics by other means”. Bullets replace ballots, and peace ceases to be an option – for anybody.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 April 2022.